Lecture of a Lightning Rod

By Jessica Danson (’11)

Dr. Robert Gallo and President Fred OhlesScientists aren’t celebrities in our culture. Paparazzi don’t loiter outside biology labs. Yet controversy can cling to scientists like it does to sports heroes and movie stars. Few know this better than Dr. Robert Gallo, the researcher who provided the first definitive proof that HIV was the cause of AIDS. Gallo spoke at Nebraska Wesleyan on October 22.

Not long after publishing his findings on HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, Gallo was accused of stealing his samples from a French laboratory. Eventually fully exonerated, Gallo was credited alongside French researchers Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for discovering HIV.

But scandals are sticky. Despite his exoneration, conspiracy theories continued—and grew increasingly ridiculous. One outlandish theory even accused Gallo of creating the AIDS virus himself for profit. If scientists were celebrities, the National Enquirer would have eaten this story for breakfast.

Gallo would have shown up on magazine racks again in 2008. That year, in a shocking move, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Barre-Sinoussi and Montagnier for discovering HIV, but not to Gallo. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever shocked the world by not winning a Nobel.)

Perhaps the Nobel Prize Committee was afraid that wherever Gallo went, lightning followed.

But Gallo is more than a lightning rod. He’s a pioneer and healer. The HIV blood test he and his colleagues developed was a vital and life-extending tool in controlling the disease. From 1980 to 1990, Gallo was the world’s most cited scientist. He’s received numerous awards including the Albert Lasker Prize (twice), the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor, the World Health Award and the Harvard Medical School Warren Alpert Foundation Award. He is as close to a celebrity as researchers come.

So, with more scientists poring over his work than any other’s for a decade, and with numerous awards in his repertoire, Gallo gave a lecture at NWU titled “Viruses, Epidemics and the Prospects for Their Control with Emphasis on HIV/AIDS”. He also generously made time for lunches, dinners and in-class discussions with NWU students about medical school, virology and other scientific topics.

Now, I’m a religion major. I read Reuther, Schleiermacher and Asad. Do those names ring a bell? Yeah, neither did Gallo for me. Gallo’s work lies well outside my comfort zone. Scared-witless listening to Gallo speak, I was shocked to realize about halfway through that I was actually following his logic on virology and the realpolitik of inoculation. Not bad for a religion major.

But as it turns out, many others were surprised to experience the same understanding. From staff members to communication majors to faculty, what I heard praised about Gallo’s lecture was its plainspoken (if mercifully simplified) version of virology. Gallo removed the haze around HIV/AIDS, presented the patterns of its expansion sans social commentary and fended off the silly criticisms of pesky conspiracy theorists.

So, while NWU wasn’t immune to Gallo’s near-celebrity (a non-paparazzo photographer did follow him around campus), his public lecture was rather, dare I say, uncontroversial.


Dr. Gallo’s visit and lecture were made possible by the generosity of Harry Huge (‘59). Jessica Danson is a Huge-NWU Scholarship recipient.